Vending machines: still working out the kinks

There was an interesting story in the NYT on monday on vending machines offering more healthy options in schools. First of all, I was surprised to see how much of a business vending machines were in schools:

Of the nation’s nearly 5.4 million vending machines, 6.8 percent were in elementary, middle and high schools in 2010, up from 5 percent the year before, according to a survey by Automatic Merchandiser Magazine. Another 5.9 percent were at colleges.

The school I went to growing up had none, so this was news to me. Things are changing for those schools that do, however:

While 27 states have adopted policies regulating nutritional content in elementary schools’ vending machines — typically limiting fat, sugar, calories and portion size — some of those policies have lacked teeth, said Elizabeth Walker, a project director for the National Association of State Boards of Education. Under a 2010 law, however, the federal Agriculture Department must set national nutrition standards for school vending machine foods and drinks by the end of next year.

I am thrilled that schools are trying to encourage healthy options for kids. But let’s not minimize how hard it is going to be to change behavior:

Commack’s healthy machine sold 296 items totaling $388.75 from Sept. 1 to Sept. 19, less than one-third of the sales made by a nearby machine that offers less nutritious fare. Moreover, the top-selling item from the new machine was baked potato chips — less fat than fried chips, but less than ideal — with almost no takers for peach smoothies, roasted edamame or fresh pineapple chunks.

Especially since the healthy options are more expensive:

In Commack, some students complained that items in the new machine were either unappealing or expensive: hummus is $3; yogurt smoothies, $2; and a pair of hard-boiled eggs, $1.50, compared with the more typical $1 for a bag of chips. John, the 10th grader who walked away, said he mistakenly bought a grape-raspberry twist for $1 last week — he was aiming for the baked barbecue chips — and “it just tasted really bad.”

Plus, no offense, but the thought of getting two hard-boiled eggs out of a machine is making me a bit nauseous.

Look, it’s hard to be against this. I think it’s fantastic that the schools are trying to help offer more healthy options. I’m also encouraged by the fact that vending machine companies are continuing to make money off of selling healthier snacks instead of closing down altogether, or figuring out ways to get around the new regulations. I’m skeptical that we’ll see real change, though, while healthier snacks are both less appealing and more costly.

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